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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Why sovereignty matters

People demonstrate against Moammar Gadhafi at the Green Square in Tripoli, Libya, late Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini

Over the weekend, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, drew a provocative conclusion from the war in Libya for The Atlantic:

If we really do look at the world in terms of governments and societies and the relationship between them, and do recognize that both governments and their citizens have rights as subjects of international law and have agency as actors in international politics, then what exactly is the international community ‘intervening’ in?

This is certainly a novel interpretation of sovereignty, which is the concept of a state (i.e. its government) having complete, independent authority over its territory. The concept of viewing both governments and societies as “subjects” of international law is a fairly new one, though in the realm of international law it’s been a fundamental assumption for some time. At the same time, Slaughter’s redefinition of “intervention,” based on the idea that there is no such thing as traditional sovereignty, is a brand new way of glossing over the thorny problems that undermine a policy of humanitarian intervention.

Put simply, the old-school concept of sovereignty that Slaughter somewhat breezily dismisses is actually the cornerstone of the international system. Much as advocates of the “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, like to say that sovereignty is irrelevant to the relationship of a society to its government (which Slaughter explicitly argues), it is that very sovereignty which also creates the moral and legal justification to intervene. For example, the societies of the United States and NATO did not vote to intervene in Libya — their governments did. And if the polls were any indication, the public was very skeptical of the reasons for intervening.

Slaughter goes on to argue that non-interventionism is based on the idea that sovereignty existed in the 19th and 20th century to protect states from invasion. This is, too, is wrong: sovereignty was originally envisioned not just to protect from outside threats but also to protect people from each other. Sovereignty, in other words, facilitates protection not just from another state, but also from internal strife (which can also destabilize a national government and thus undermine society). As my friend Dan Trombly eloquently explains, “The 19th and 20th century conceptions of sovereignty… aimed to prevent civil war and its even more horrendous consequence, the internationalization of a civil war.”

This is precisely what has happened in Libya. Much as we celebrate the downfall of a hated, clownish tyrant, what remains — and what is unexplained by Anne-Marie Slaughter — is a troubling disregard for strategic frameworks, a coherent plan for the transition and a worrying triumphalism for an intervention process that’s far from over. These, too, matter when it comes to redefining sovereignty.

Among the chief reasons for intervening in Libya was the prevention of a massacre in the eastern city of Benghazi. Despite hazy evidence, at best, this was destined to happen — shelling a few neighborhoods in a civil war is hardly evidence of an imminent Rwanda-style genocide, and other rebel-controlled areas Gaddhafi’s regime has reoccupied did not see mass slaughter — the notion of engaging in preventive warfare has a checkered track record. The U.S. war in Iraq was also based on a policy of preventive warfare: It was necessary to invade the country, the Bush administration argued, because Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs and militarism posed an imminent threat to the security of the United States. The notion of preemptively toppling another government to safeguard national interests was met with horror and opposition from many international security scholars; yet now, the notion of toppling another government to safeguard rebels is considered enlightened policymaking.

The war in Iraq collapsed the few state institutions that existed, destroyed any concept of law and order, opened the door for Al Qaeda to set up terrorist cells in the country, and spurred a disastrous insurgency. Of course, preemption is not destined to result in failure; rather, these failures can be attributed to the Bush administration’s sloppy invasion of a country it did not understand, and for which it refused to create strategic plans. The same problems are currently facing allied forces in Libya: despite five months of planning, there is no clear strategy for how to deal with a post-Gadhafi state.

My biggest objection to the new doctrine of interventionism is that it seem to rely so much on whim. I still don’t understand why we needed to intervene in Libya, but not Yemen and Syria. I have yet to see a framework that guides action. How do we determine when, to borrow Slaughter’s New Sovereignty concept, a government violates its responsibility to its citizens. Defined broadly enough, every government violates some theoretical norm about its own conduct. Did the Clinton Administration rescind its right to govern the country after storming David Karesh’s compound in Waco? Did Kim Jong-Il rescind his right to govern after starving millions of his own people to death through economic mismanagement in the 1990s? These are clearly very different situations, but where is the line, and how is it drawn?

It is easy to get caught up in the euphoria of a military victory and to proclaim the steps leading to it as a template for future actions. In 2003, we thought Iraq would usher in a new era of regime change for democracy. It didn’t — because while we had a really good idea of how to win the war, we were especially bad at doing anything constructive afterward. Celebrating Libya as a triumph of interventionism and the death of traditional sovereignty before there is even a replacement government in place in Tripoli is the height of hubris and myopia.

Rather than repeating the same mistakes of the Bush administration — quick triumphalism, breezy dismissal of critics, and an arrogant presumption that we know better than the locals what is best for them and what constitutes a proper government — we should try to actually learn from our mistakes. In Libya, that hasn’t yet happened.